Remember Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, how she was all beautiful and luminous and resistant-to-Nazis? Well hang on to your hats, folks, because Violette Szabo makes Ingrid Bergman look like she was only pretending to do all that stuff in front of a camera.
Violette Szabo (nee Bushell) was an actual secret agent for the actual British in World War II. For real.
Born to Frenchwoman Reine Leroy and her husband, English taxi-driver Charles Bushell in 1921, Violette was the product of a love affair that began when her father was fighting in France in the Great War. She grew up in London speaking both English and French fluently and, most importantly, she smelled nice.
Eighteen-year-old Violette was working at the perfume counter of a department store in Brixton when World War II began. Little did she know then how the war would define the rest of her life. Buy how would she know? Eighteen-year-olds hardly ever know anything, except the words to all the new songs and how to attach P-plates.
In 1940, Violette met 31-year-old Etienne Szabo at a Bastille Day celebration in London. He was there as a member of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, fighting to regain France from the clutches of Nazi Germany. When Etienne discovered that he was about to be shipped off to North Africa, the couple decided to marry, only 42 days after they met. Forty-two days. It takes me longer to organise my Tupperware drawer, much less a wedding frock. I guess nothing motivates one to make important life decisions like true love and the threat of being shot dead in a foreign land.
While her husband did gallant soldiery things in Egypt, Violette soldiered through contractions back home, giving birth to Tania in June 1942. Only four months later, Etienne was killed in El Alamein, before he had a chance to meet his baby daughter.
Violette was, understandably, quite cross. She decided to join the British Special Operations Executive, an espionage unit set up to sabotage the operations of the enemy and assist resistance movements around Europe. She reportedly told a colleague, “My husband has been killed by the Germans and I'm going to get my own back.” Or, as they would have said in the vernacular of the time: “WOMAN SCORNED. STEP BACK, JERRY”.
After being trained in navigation, shooting things, blowing things up, jumping out of planes and bit of French practice, Violette and her gorgeousness were ready for their first mission. In April 1944, she parachuted into France on a mission to reunite a splintered Resistance group, sabotage a few transport routes and pass vital intelligence back to England, all in an effort to make Ingrid Bergman look comparatively dull.
Szabo’s second mission was to coordinate French guerrilla groups in an effort to stuff up German communication lines and facilitate the Allied invasion of Normandy. Everything was going well until she and some of her French minders encountered a German roadblock in June 1944. After an exchange of gunfire that would have frightened the daks off Ingrid Bergman, Violette was captured by the Germans.
Whilst in captivity, Szabo was fetched many delicious cups of tea by her Nazi captors, and after learning a little German, was offered the opportunity to co-author a range of children’s books in exchange for her freedom. At least, that’s what would have happened, if this was some namby-pamby motion picture. But it’s not.
Violette was handed over to the SS Security Service for interrogation, and then to the Gestapo for added torture, before being interned in the Ravensbrϋck concentration camp, a charming little place where the lucky prisoners were the ones subjected to hard labour instead of medical experiments.
Nobody knows exactly when Violette Szabo was executed by firing squad, but it’s likely to have happened around the 5th of February, 1945. Her posthumously-awarded George Cross citation reads:
“She was… continuously and atrociously tortured but never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of any value.”
Gorgeous, brave and classy to the end.